Substance Use News, May 2021

Substance Use News provides a snapshot of news and resources for those working in harm reduction. We share pieces on the social, medical and political responses to the opioid crisis, from advocacy to welcome change. With the added layer of the coronoavirus/COVID-19 public health constraints, those working in harm reduction have heightened concerns about how to provide the safest, most dignified support to people who use drugs. For COVID-19 specific resources, including harm reduction resources, please visit our COVID-19 resources page.  See our Drug Use and Overdose Response page for resources on overdose services, team resilience, governmental reports, policy recommendations, and more. 


In the News

Racism a key factor in BC’s growing Indigenous overdose crisis, says health official
May 27: First Nations Health Authority found a 119% increase in toxic drug deaths among Indigenous people in 2020. Women accounted for 32 per cent of toxic drug deaths among Indigenous people, which is twice the rate of non-Indigenous people in BC.


Trail city council hears from opioid crisis delegation
May 25: A delegation that included people from Moms Stop the Harm, AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society (ANKORS), and Rural Empowered Drug Users Network (REDUN) met with council to provide a powerful presentation on how the overdose crisis has affected every community. The delegation asked the city to continue to work on a plan to create an overdose prevention site, address the homeless population in Trail, and listen to people who have experienced homelessness and addiction.


Decriminalization Done Right: A Human Rights and Public Health Vision for Drug Policy Reform
May 11: The current “Vancouver Model” sets a dangerous precedent—a system by police is for police, not the people it was intended to help. We need #DecrimDoneRight where policies are co-developed by people who use drugs.


Hospital visits for substance use increased during the first months of the pandemic
May 6: More Canadians required hospital care for harm caused by substances such as alcohol, opioids and stimulants between March and September 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to new preliminary data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). There were close to 81,000 hospital stays for harm caused by substances, representing an increase of about 4,000, compared with the previous year.


12-year-old becomes youngest person to die of overdose in BC during pandemic
May 5: The mother of a young girl who died by overdose says, “We were trying to find a place for her to go and they said there was nowhere for her to go because she was too young.” Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor for the BC Centre for Substance Use says federal and provincial gaps in the system are costing people their lives.


Just Months Into a Yearlong Pilot, New Zealand Legalizes Drug-Checking
May 5: New Zealand is the first country in the world to fully legalize — in the sense of explicitly providing for— public drug-checking services. (Drug-checking is sanctioned in Switzerland based on the interpretation of preexisting law, while the Netherlands has an office-based drug-checking program that receives government funding; festival services meanwhile operate in legal grey areas, with at least tacit permission, in countries such as Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States.)


Marilou Gagnon: Government negligence on full display as overdose deaths continue to rise
April 30: “I watched the daily briefing as we learned that one person died of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. I expected a mention of the five people, on average, who die every day from an overdose—or the 500 people who died of an overdose in the past three months, in large part due to increased risks associated with COVID-19 measures and inadequate planning to meet the needs of people who use substances amid a poisoned and changing drug supply. Nothing. More than 7,000 people have died of an overdose in British Columbia in 5 years.”


Advocacy and Education

Why peer overdose response workers deserve more
Laura Shaver, a peer advocacy navigator with BC Centre on Substance Use says, “The role of a peer worker is probably one of the most energy-demanding jobs you can think of. Our lived experience is invaluable, and without us the programs can’t go on. Yet, the word ‘peer’ has become stigmatized and we’re not treated fairly.”


I Want to Tell You How This Feels
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe calls BC’s situation a “toxic drug emergency.” Is it still defined as an emergency when the same scenario has been replaying for five years? Addiction, like cancer or multiple sclerosis, is a disease that can relapse, meaning it comes back at times as part of its natural arc. Nobody is shamed when their cancer recurs, but when a person in recovery relapses they are usually removed from treatment and deemed a failure, leaving them more wounded and isolated.


Drug policy inertia has been driving stigma and overdoses for decades
The truth is, the overdose public health emergency started back in the 1990s and never ended. The conditions and policies that have made the drug supply so toxic and risk of a drug poisoning so high have always been there. Unlike with HIV/AIDS, there have been no big policy changes.


Survival needs overshadow PrEP adherence among women who inject drugs
Women who inject drugs are particularly vulnerable to HIV acquisition due to gender-based power differences. Sharing syringes and having sex without a condom are often acts of intimacy that demonstrate trust in relationships, making it difficult for women to negotiate HIV prevention. A study from the US found that the women who took part prioritized basic needs over PrEP in the context of personal, social, and structural challenges such as substance use, homelessness, and economic disadvantages.


Exploring the 1st year of progress in an Indigenous-owned community-based managed alcohol program
The Gwa’dzi Managed Alcohol Program was started in response to COVID-19 restrictions. Learn how managed alcohol programs work and how the community took charge. On-demand from UBC Learning Circle.


Changing Circumstances Around Opioid-Related Deaths in Ontario during COVID-19
Within Ontario, the pandemic response has consisted of waves of public health restrictions
of varying severity to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. These restrictions have included physical
distancing measures that resulted in reduced service levels for health and social services, such as
pharmacies, outpatient clinics, and harm reduction sites, that provide care to people who use drugs


How has COVID-19 impacted access to STBBI-related health services, including harm reduction services, for people who use drugs or alcohol in Canada? 
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) conducted an anonymous online survey in January and February of asking people who use drugs and/or alcohol to take part. The survey included anyone 18 years or older who was living in Canada and who identified as a person who used drugs, alcohol or cannabis in the past 6 months. In total, 1034 people from across Canada participated.



Destigmatizing language around substance use and harm reduction reporting
This resource produced by the BC Centre for Disease Control “aims to de-stigmatize media reporting around substance use and harm reduction in Canada. It includes context provided by people with lived and living experience of substance use who shared perceptions of how the use of stigmatizing language and images in media impacts them.


From the Harm Reduction Reports from the BC Centre for Disease Control –



Questions? Feedback? Get in touch! Janet Madsen, Capacity Building  and Digital Communications Coordinator, [email protected]


Focus image by Andrew, Flickr (Creative Commons)